Last year, Inspire submitted its response to the Department of Health’s consultation on the proposed introduction of minimum unit pricing (MUP) for alcoholic drinks in Northern Ireland.

As we pointed out then, MUP is not a magic bullet. It must, instead, complement a regional strategy for reducing the impact of alcohol. We would like to see other harm-reduction options explored, particularly with respect to the funding of prevention and treatment.

Our support for the policy – within a multi-pronged approach to reducing harm and promoting recovery – stems from proof that it can have a real effect. The fact of the matter is that a small percentage of the local population is consuming a high proportion of the alcohol sold here every day. Evidence emerging from other jurisdictions indicates that targeted pricing reforms discourage vulnerable people from buying cheap, high-strength drinks – the ultimate target of MUP.

One such jurisdiction is Scotland. Having introduced MUP in May 2018, Scotland continues to serve as a useful test case in this regard and we were pleased, therefore, to note fresh research published this week from Public Health Scotland (PHS). It bolsters the evidentiary base by suggesting that MUP is having a discernible impact on alcohol-related deaths and hospital admissions.

According to PHS’s joint study with the University of Glasgow, there has been an estimated 13.4% fall in deaths attributable to alcohol consumption, as well as a 4.1% decrease in hospital admissions. These figures relate to the period between the roll-out of the measures and the end of 2020.

Males were the group benefitting most from these reductions and individuals living in areas of high social and economic deprivation, where inhabitants are known to experience disproportionate levels of alcohol-related health issues, have been similarly affected.

We know that those living in the most socioeconomically deprived areas in Scotland experience alcohol-specific death rates more than five times higher compared to those living in the least deprived areas,” said Dr Grant Wyper, public health intelligence adviser at PHS. “The results… are therefore very encouraging in addressing this inequality, and the overall scale of preventable harm...”

While the authors acknowledge that the study has some limitations, not least the Covid-19 pandemic’s undermining of hospital capacity and attendance, the University of Glasgow’s Professor Daniel Mackay asserted that “The methods we’ve used… allow us to be confident that the reduction in alcohol health harms we’ve shown is due to the introduction of MUP…

Alex Bunting, Inspire’s Group Director of Care & Support for Mental Health and Addiction Services, welcomed the new data, saying:

The report, crucially, presents its findings in a tangible, real-world context. Around 150 deaths and 400 hospital admissions, wholly attributable to alcohol consumption, were averted during each year covered by the research. Given the 53% increase in alcohol-related deaths over the past decade in Northern Ireland, this is a stark reminder of our priorities. These numbers would suggest that MUP is an effective tool in our crucial ongoing work around harm reduction.

However, in spite of our evidence-led support for a new pricing regime, our consultation process in 2022 was elevated by the insights of the people who use our services. In our discussions with them, they feared that higher costs could simply exacerbate the prevailing cost-of-living crisis and worsen financial hardship for many.

Initiatives designed to raise the cost of consumer goods must be considered in the context of spiking poverty levels, scarcity of resources and the damage caused by behaviours linked to addiction. Poverty, mental ill health and addiction are intertwined and the risk of one factor aggravating the others is extremely high.

That’s why our public health authorities should give serious consideration to implementing MUP only as part of a larger suite of progressive policies. And do so as soon as possible.”